About three years ago, in my (then) late 40s, I started researching Mum’s family tree. To my eternal shame, I’d always assumed her side of the family wouldn’t be that interesting. Instead, it became a bit of an epic treasure hunt with lots of exciting discoveries, and an array of fascinating characters amongst my ancestors, including:
– a ‘quadroon’ in Jamaica (a quadroon is someone with one black grandparent, presumably West African in this case);
– a half-great-great-uncle brought up in a workhouse, who ended up joining the merchant navy and sailing to New Zealand, and about whose existence even his half-brother seemed to be unaware;
– a great-great-grandfather Arthur, a draper from Suffolk who suddenly turned up in Australia – in the mid 19th century – with a woman other than his lawful wife, and with whom he produced three or four more (illegitimate) children. He had apparently walked away from my great-great-grandmother Martha in Suffolk with their 7 children – the bounder!
This was just the tip of the iceberg. Before long, I had enough material to fill several episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?
The wonders of the Internet, Facebook and ancestry.co.uk are such that, as soon as I started researching my genealogy, I was almost immediately connected with people around the world to whom I’m distantly related, with whom I’ve shared information. One emailed me copies of two handwritten letters sent in 1788 from a boat sailing from Jamaica to London; I’ve posted photos on Facebook of two half-brothers in their eighties who lived on opposite sides of the world and never met (and indeed never knew of each other’s existence, as far as I’m aware), both surrounded by their five grown-up children and looking remarkably similar; and the descendants of the Australian (illegitimate!) side of my great-great-grandfather Arthur’s family have been in touch to see whether I might have photos of our mutual ancestor, as they have none. Sadly, I don’t.
Best of all, I received a copy of a long, detailed letter my grandfather wrote in 1964 (just a month before I was born) to a distant relative of his, talking about several interesting characters in the family history. With extraordinary foresight, this distant relative kept the letter for posterity, and his descendants have now shared it with us. Remarkably, it provided answers to some of the many questions that had been puzzling me about various ancestors – including why the famous Arthur had suddenly turned up in Australia!
Mum (aged 86) is, of course, delighted at what I’ve been unable to uncover if, unsurprisingly (given the sheer amount of information that I’ve discovered), a little hazy at times at how it all fits together. “Oh yes” she said, “the Jamaican connection!”, as if this was something we all knew about. (Apparently our grandmother had vaguely mentioned it at some point.) Or “And that explains the New Zealand chap who turned up on our doorstep during the war and said he was related to us. Grandpa said he couldn’t possibly be, and sent him packing!”
Of course the people with whom I REALLY want to discuss the family tree are long dead. Grandpa (who wrote the letter in 1964) died when I was only five. His wife, my grandmother, died when I was 18, an age when I – like most other 18 year olds, I’m sure – wasn’t remotely interested in boring old family history. How sad it is – and yet how natural – that we only become interested in our own history much later on in life, when it’s almost too late.
Those grandparents felt like they were from a very different generation, and our relationship with them reflected that. Mum’s relationship with her own grandchildren is, however, totally different and she’s been able, with them, to share stories and look at photos of people we never knew, but without whom none of us would exist. It’s given the next generation an amazing insight into where they come from, and into other worlds and lives from the past. Living history, no less.
When I was young, there was a particular book I loved reading – The Fearless Treasure by Noel Streatfield. It was about a group of children who travelled back to different points in time – just for a day here and there – to see what life was like. The smells, the sounds, the fashions, the lifestyles. I would love to be able to do that with all those ancestors who I feel that I’ve got to know – on paper only – to meet them and talk to them about their lives.
Doing my genealogy has been – and continues to be – an absorbing, addictive and fascinating experience. It has also made me reflect on many things, including the importance of making the most of the generations above us whilst we have them with us. Our parents’ generation is fast disappearing. Don’t leave it till it’s too late.